WASHINGTON (RNS) The Obama administration has made a rare foray into the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, backing the Vatican’s claim it is immune to lawsuits in the U.S. because it is a sovereign nation.
In a brief filed on Friday (May 21) before the Supreme Court, the acting solicitor general argued an appellate court erred in 2009 when it ruled the Vatican could be held liable for the alleged sexual abuse of a Seattle-area man in the 1960s.
The Supreme Court is considering the Vatican’s appeal of “Holy See v. John V. Doe.” Lawyers from the Department of State and Department of Justice joined the acting solicitor general’s brief, which asks the high court to send the case back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for the unnamed man argue that the Vatican transferred the allegedly abusive priest from Ireland to the U.S., despite knowing of accusations against him.
But with limited exceptions, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976 protects foreign governments from being sued in U.S. courts.
“Improperly subjecting a foreign state to suit can in some circumstances raise foreign relations and reciprocity concerns,” the Obama administration’s brief argues.
In 2005, the Bush administration successfully urged a Texas court to dismiss a suit against Pope Benedict XVI because he enjoys immunity as the Holy See’s head of state. The government filed a similar motion in 1994 in a suit against the late Pope John Paul II.
In an separate case ongoing in Kentucky, the Vatican is arguing it is not responsible for bishops who transferred abusive priests because the bishops are not Vatican employees.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Abused Priests, called John Doe’s suit an “uphill struggle,” but said “we’re glad this brave victim still has a chance to expose Vatican complicity in horrific child sex crimes.”
— Daniel Burke
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